NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Safety Kevin Byard has heard the predictions that the Tennessee Titans will finish last in the AFC South, and it’s very easy to ignore all that chatter.
Byard also remembers the Titans being called Super Bowl contenders after a 3-1 start a year ago. Yes, the Titans might have gotten caught up in high expectations before finishing 9-7 — a win out of a second straight playoff berth.
“This is a long season …” Byard said. “We have to really stay in it, stay grinding, stay dedicated and do everything we possibly can to put ourselves in position to be in the Super Bowl in February.”
The Titans have one postseason trip to show for the first three consecutive winning seasons since this team moved to Tennessee in 1997. Only four NFL teams have longer consecutive winning streaks than the Titans, who hope to mark their 60th season as a franchise with their first division title since 2008 and their second Super Bowl berth — first since the 1999 season.
Coach Mike Vrabel has been pushing his players for months to push themselves from good to great in his second season. That will be challenging in the NFL’s only division in 2018 featuring three teams with winning records.
Vrabel might have a wild card in his pocket with at least 14 Titans, led by quarterback Marcus Mariota, in the final year of their contracts, perhaps providing added motivation. Byard was in that group himself until the Titans made him the NFL’s highest-paid safety at the start of training camp, and now he has a goal in mind to prove he earned his big paycheck.
“The elevation is trying to elevate that trophy in February in Miami,” Byard said.
Some things to know about the Titans, who open the season Sept. 8 at Cleveland:
Coordinator Dean Pees’ decision to return for a second season puts the Titans in position to improve the NFL’s No. 3 scoring defense, which allowed 18.9 points per game. They trailed only Chicago (17.7) and Baltimore (17.9) in that category, and the Titans were second to Philadelphia (44.6 percent) giving up touchdowns inside their own 20 (44.7 percent). Every starter in the secondary is back after helping the Titans rank sixth against the pass. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are retired after combining for two sacks in 2018, so new starters Harold Landry III and veteran Cameron Wake should boost those numbers.
SUSPENDED PRO BOWL TACKLE
Taylor Lewan broke the news himself, saying the NFL told him he was suspended for the first four games of the season for a performance-enhancing substance. Lewan blames a bad batch of a supplement for a failed test. Dennis Kelly will replace the three-time Pro Bowl left tackle, but it won’t be easy with games at Cleveland, Jacksonville and Atlanta; the lone game at home is against Indianapolis.
MARIOTA’S LAST CHANCE
The Titans are paying Mariota $20.9 million, and the No. 2 draft pick overall in 2015 will have to earn his next contract. He has yet to play a full 16-game season and missed three starts last year, including the regular-season finale with a playoff berth on the line for the winner. Mariota put it best, saying his approach is “Let it ride.”
The Titans upgraded the talent around Mariota this offseason, assembling the most options he’s had in Tennessee. They signed veteran left guard Rodger Saffold and wide receiver Adam Humphries, then drafted receiver A.J. Brown out of Mississippi in the second round. Three-time Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker also is back after breaking his right ankle in the 2018 opener. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith replaced Matt LaFleur after he was hired by Green Bay, and Smith’s task is boosting an offense that ranked next to last in passes attempted last season, and 27th averaging 19.4 points scored a game.
Plus, they need running back Derrick Henry, also in his final year under contract, to run all season the way he finished 2018. He had the best month of any NFL player in December when he ran for 625 of his 1,059 yards. He finished second in the AFC and sixth in the NFL in rushing, and his 12 TDs put him third.
LOOKING FOR SIMMONS
Tennessee gambled drafting Jeffery Simmons at No. 19 overall after a torn left ACL in February dropped the Mississippi State defensive lineman out of possible top-five consideration. If his recovery goes smoothly, the Titans might have the chance to activate him for the final month. Three of their final five games are inside the AFC South.
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